Gaijin have finally rolled out the ground forces element of War Thunder, and for the past few days, I've been playing it rather a lot. It's only early days yet, but having also been a World of Tanks player since the early stages of closed beta, I figured I may as well pass comment on how the games compare and some thoughts on their communities and philosophies.
I remember how WoT was when it first came out of beta - unpolished, but captivating. Gaijin seem to have gone the opposite route with a very visually impressive game that has little substance so far. Allow me to elaborate before the hordes of War Thunder fans (including a significant number of players who found World of Tanks to be "rigged" against them, in other words sufferers of severe manifestations of the Dunning-Kruger effect) tear me apart.
On release, WoT was running on a rather dated and not particularly impressive engine. It still is, but Wargaming have since overhauled BigWorld with fairly impressive results. Back then, however, the game didn't look immensely impressive. It was clear a lot of effort had been put into getting the tanks to look right, as they were lovingly detailed, but graphically the game was lagging behind the curve while running quite poorly for it.
From the very earliest days of beta, War Thunder has looked quite impressive, Gaijin having taken the existing engine from Il-2 Birds of Prey along with many existing art assets (and probably more than a little of the code). There is a very important caveat here though, which is that while the game is graphically impressive and boasts many beautiful vistas, several maps have prominently jaggy areas that look more like they belong in the previous decade than a fairly recent title.
More importantly, the tanks themselves are one place where Gaijin have the technical means but not the artistic ones: I can say without reservation that Wargaming's recently-overhauled tanks look far better, both from an artistic and a historical standpoint. Wargaming have gone to the trouble of actually consulting historians to weather the tanks in a realistic fashion, while Gaijin have taken the classic approach of "eh, just throw mud at it and scratch all the paint off of all the hard edges". Having seen a lot of tanks, I know which I am giving points to.
With the above said, War Thunder does immerse you more in the environment by forcing a much closer viewpoint to the tank. A lot of WoT players, myself included, spend most of their time zoomed out far enough to miss the smaller nuances of the scenery (which, I should note, Wargaming do quite a nice job on themselves). War Thunder, in general, has been trying for immersion. I wish I could say it worked out for them, but, well... I wouldn't be writing this if it had.
There is a lot of ground to cover here, but I'll start with the most basic: control. WoT controls are simple enough, your tank does exactly what you tell it to and handles more or less like a car. Wargaming handwave this for the player's benefit - you have a driver after all, you're just telling him where to go. This is part of WoT's much more friendly, simplified approach - it takes the historical specifications of tanks into account and offers some pretty deep information for players to work with, but it simplifies the tanks themselves to a more rational system of hitpoints, RNG rolls, and abstracted values. Incidentally, this approach works very well for tanks but horribly for planes, which I would venture is a major part of the reason World of Warplanes hasn't been doing very well.
Wargaming have indicated that the tanks' handling will be adjusted in the near future, with actual gears, suspensions, and proper traction implemented. However, these will still be handled by the ingame driver, and so it is likely little will change other than pleasant visual feedback as you drive your tank around. I'm unaware of any plans with regards to steering, but the implementation of realistic steering in the game - particularly for the largely clutch-and-brake WWII-era tanks it features - would seriously complicate driving, and so I expect they will omit it. Similarly I doubt Wargaming intend on making gear changes too intrusive, as being able to use the arcade agility of the tanks in the game is a major factor in how players actually battle.
War Thunder, in stark contrast, has gone all-out with the realistic handling... or at least, with their interpretation of it. Tanks lurch about constantly, getting up to speed can be quite a lengthy process, and heaven forbid you need to suddenly stop and reverse. In that regard, then, they have achieved a goal of immersive and realistic handling. Steering on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired, with most tanks being reluctant to turn at all within certain speed ranges. The actual process of turning the tank ingame neither simulates realistic mechanics nor smooth gameplay, and it's not uncommon for it to glitch out entirely and force your tank to do something you didn't want it to. Gaijin have players spending more time fighting their tank than fighting the enemy (incidentally, something Wargaming have openly stated they intend to avoid), and it can be incredibly frustrating.
Shooting, too, is affected. World of Tanks players are used to systems of hitpoints, alpha strike, DPM, and other familiar terms to many gamers. Critical hits exist in War Thunder as they do in WoT, but they're... different. This is my biggest problem with the game, actually - it wants to be realistic, but it often takes five or more penetrating shots to finally knock out an enemy tank regardless of what you hit, and being on the receiving end of incoming fire is unpleasant beyond words as every hit cripples your tank in some new or exciting way. Occasionally, though, it only takes one despite doing nothing differently from the previous attempts. There are no repair kits or medkits in War Thunder. Damage is repaired over time (if at all), with even basic repairs taking over a minute. Wounded crew cannot be healed or replaced, so losing a gunner effectively puts you out of the game. In general, the game punishes aggressive play.
While most War Thunder matches result in players hiding in bushes and exchanging fire at extreme ranges or rushing to their deaths, the same events usually take longer to transpire in WoT. Players tend to be more aggressive, and will actively move into crucial positions even if it puts them at risk of being hit. In fact, the most oft-complained about things in the game are those which punish that aggressive play, such as high-alpha tank destroyers, autoloaders, and artillery.
The biggest difference between the two seems to be the mindset of their players. I will state quite surely that World of Tanks players are far more competitive on the whole, with those of us who are the most prone to such behaviour using mods that sacrifice that same immersion that Gaijin are looking to foster in their own game. I still have grass turned on because I like the visuals, but many turn it off. I have gun recoil turned off, as well as the tank sight rocking from acceleration. Many turn off shadows and particle effects, though I do not.
The average War Thunder tanker, in stark contrast, displays little interest in anything at all, much less winning matches and building a name for themselves. By and large, they seem quite content to putter about the field paying little attention to the map, the objectives, or tanks from either team as they enjoy being immersed in their little world where they're driving a little tank about the wilderness. That's okay, we all need something like that from time to time. However, there are games that do that kind of thing a lot better, such as Red Orchestra or any given tank sim.
Ultimately, that's War Thunder's biggest problem. It wants all the immersion of a simulator, but all the casualness of an arcadey free-to-play game. Wargaming found a happy medium, and ended up propelling themselves into the forefront of online gaming developers. Gaijin, meanwhile, have produced a game where all the people who quit WoT over spotting mechanics¹, RNG², and artillery³ will find the very same things they left in just as much abundance, except this time covered in a thin veneer of "realism".
1. War Thunder features some form of spotting mechanics in all game modes, where tanks will physically disappear from the player's view. World of Tanks uses a similar, server-governed system to prevent cheating, a system which is often considered very frustrating to new or unaware players and forms the basis for most complaints of "unfair" gameplay or "hacking". At one point in War Thunder I had an enemy tank drive behind a rock only a few tens of metres away and it disappeared until I drove fully around the rock - at first I thought this was only in the 'arcade' mode but it later happened again in a 'simulator battle'.
2. See paragraph regarding critical damage. Critical hits and kills feel very arbitrary in War Thunder, while in World of Tanks the RNG plays a much lesser role.
3. All light and medium tanks in War Thunder can unlock the ability to call down an accurate artillery barrage at any point of the map that can be seen line-of-sight from a point about fifteen or twenty metres above their tank's turret, with a cooldown time of about a minute. The artillery has a fairly small splash radius per shell but a direct hit is capable of destroying a tank in one hit. Dispersion is random, so a player's chance of being destroyed by artillery is essentially luck more than anything else.